MANAGING WASTE IN ANTARCTICA
In Antarctica, as elsewhere, it is not possible for people to visit without leaving some evidence of their presence, no matter how careful they are. The construction and operation of over 50 Antarctic stations on the continent has made an obvious, although localised, impact on the environment.
Like many countries operating in Antarctica, Australia has inherited problems resulting from the way people used to build and operate stations. Until relatively recently, waste disposal practices in Antarctica were similar to elsewhere in the world with open tips, land fills and burning, as well as the practice of 'sea-icing' - dumping rubbish onto the sea ice during winter to float away and sink during the summer. Sewage was burned or else discharged with little or no treatment straight into the sea. Some areas around stations and field camps became contaminated from oil and chemical spills. Large amounts of packaging that could not be re-used or recycled were dumped.
Rubbish tips at all Australian Antarctic stations were closed in 1985 and a committed clean-up program has seen many tonnes of waste removed. A coordinated remediation and research program of Australia's Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waste and contaminated sites is being undertaken. As part of a comprehensive commitment to protect the environment, hazardous materials, including polystyrene beads, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and radioactive materials, are now prohibited from import to Antarctica.
In order to trial and evaluate the impacts of differing remediation methods, the Thala Valley tip site near Casey Station is being cleaned up in the first instance. Removal of waste commenced in 2002-03 and continues. When it is completed, work will begin at tip sites near the abandoned former United States of America station of Wilkes.
Between November 2000 and February 2001, an extensive clean-up was also undertaken at the abandoned station site at Atlas Cove on Heard Island. This clean-up removed over 25 tonnes of building debris and waste. This initial clean-up was followed up during the 2003-04 expedition to Heard Island.
Expeditioners now follow specific guidelines when handling waste on stations, in the field and on board ships. Waste is handled according to several broad categories:
Table 24.17 shows the composition and quantity of waste returned to Australia from Casey, Davis, Mawson and Macquarie Island stations in 2003-04.
- wastes that are likely to become putrid are incinerated in a two-stage, high temperature incinerator, with the resultant ash returned to Australia;
- metals, plastics, paper, cardboard and glass are separated and returned to Australia for recycling;
- non-recyclable wastes are returned to Australia for appropriate disposal;
- reusable packaging materials are used, wherever possible; and
- biological sewage treatment plants have been installed at all Australian Antarctic stations. (Sludge from the plant is removed to Australia, and ultraviolet sterilisation of the effluent is currently being trialled to ensure that no harmful organisms are released into the environment.)
24.17 WASTE RETURNED TO AUSTRALIA FROM ANTARCTIC STATIONS - 2003-04
|Cooking oil and fat||L|
|Sewage sludge/grey water||L|
|Steel - including cans||kg|
|Total material returned to Australia||kg|
|Source: Australian Antarctic Data Centre, Australian Government Antarctic Division, 'Antarctic State of the Environment' Indicator 53 - Waste returned to Australia.|